In the first beat of Morris Panych’s black comedy, Vigil, at the Segal Centre until April 1, an overly theatrical, neurotic character bursts into his dying aunt’s attic bedroom and off the top says “Let’s not talk about anything depressing. Do you want to be cremated?”
The man is Kemp, (Marcel Jeannin) who has quit his bank job to move in and care for his enfeebled aunt Grace (Kim Yaroshevskaya). Fully expecting her to die within a week or two, he has come to cash in once she has gone. Kemp is decidedly not a people person; his bedside manner, to put it mildly, is atrocious. “I don’t like people,” he declares at one point, “It is not that I can take them or leave them. I really don’t like them.” As he picks the scabs from his emotional scars in a series of vignettes that mark the passing of time, we learn why he is such a miserable human being.
The play is really a 90 minute monologue that rehashes Kemp’s past, without making him sympathetic. Through it all Kemp goads Grace into dying. When she doesn’t co-operate, his exasperation with her drives the plot. During most of the diatribe, Grace remains silent, knitting away in her bed. Autumn turns to winter, winter turns to spring, and by the time spring turns to summer, Grace still isn’t dead. Incredibly, by then, the two have become mutually dependent.
This is theatre of the absurd that emphasizes the dynamics of the human need to acceptance. Because Kemp is such a self-loathing, nasty character, the challenge to any actor who attempts the role is to make an audience at least empathize. Jeannin almost pulls it off. But, - as the old saying goes, dying is easy, comedy, especially black comedy - is hard. Jeannin’s timing is off and some of the bitter punch lines don’t have the mordant sting. The same production was directed by Martin Faucher in French at the Rideau Vert. It may be that having assimilated the award winning text in French, some of the nuance in English has been discarded.
If the true test of an actor is not to act, but to react. Kim Yaroshevskaya as Grace passes with flying colours. This old lady may be dying, but she is delightfully alert, and certainly no body’s fool. In the program notes director Faucher suggests Kemps savagery gradually makes way for reconciliation and tenderness.
In spite of the wickedly surprising plot twist in the final scenes, while there are a couple of poignant moments, tenderness remains elusive. Set designer Jonas Bouchard has assembled a delightful granny bedroom under the eaves that manages to look small on the Segal’s immense stage. In spite of its flaws, Vigil resonates with anyone who has had to deal with an aging relative, in a wry, and occasionally uncomfortable manner.